Ethan Hawke Brings Abolitionist John Brown's Story To Life

Oct 1, 2020
Originally published on October 4, 2020 11:47 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Actor Ethan Hawke is bringing abolitionist John Brown's story to life. Hawke stars in Showtime's limited series "The Good Lord Bird," which premieres Sunday. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says what makes this story especially fitting for today's times also makes it difficult for him to watch.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: One twist which makes "The Good Lord Bird" so compelling is that the story of the violent, devoutly religious John Brown is seen largely through the eyes of a young Black boy named Henry. Played with wide-eyed wonder by Joshua Caleb Johnson, Henry notes that Black folks in the 1850s had divided opinions on Brown, whose attacks aimed at freeing slaves in Kansas and Virginia helped ratchet up tensions that led to the Civil War.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD LORD BIRD")

JOSHUA CALEB JOHNSON: (As Henry) Some Black folks love them, and they think trouble needed to be stirred. But some Black folks hate them for thinking that he was some sort of white savior. I loved the man. The day he was hung, there was only one silver lining. I could finally stop wearing that dress.

DEGGANS: Yeah. Henry wears a dress through much of the story because Brown mistakes him for a girl when they first meet. The abolitionist takes the young boy with him after his father is killed. Henry is a fictional character who moves through the story like Zelig, meeting figures like Frederick Douglass while inexplicably surviving horrendous battles, often standing next to Brown.

Playing up the absurdity of these situations lends a comedic feel, which makes the story's violence and brutality a little easier to handle. Like this moment, where Brown quizzes his sons on Bible verses in the middle of an explicitly bloody showdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD LORD BIRD")

ETHAN HAWKE: (As John Brown) Your soul is more precious than your life. You know that, right? You know that?

JACK ALCOTT: (As Jason Brown) Yes, sir.

HAWKE: (As John Brown) Yeah. Salmon, what's the good book say about that Ezekiel 16:8?

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS FIRING)

ELLAR COLTRANE: (As Salmon Brown) Well, I - I don't remember.

HAWKE: (As John Brown, yelling) Oh, Jason. Help him out.

DEGGANS: Ethan Hawke is the show's magnetic center, playing John Brown as an unhinged zealot. He executes people for even knowing slave owners, surviving battles through a combination of dumb luck and sheer nerve.

When he reaches out for financial support to Frederick Douglass, played by a magnificently quaffed Daveed Diggs, Brown is put in his place.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD LORD BIRD")

HAWKE: (As John Brown) We freed slaves.

DAVEED DIGGS: (As Frederick Douglass) Yes, by murder. John, you severed heads. You bring more trouble to us than you bring freedom.

HAWKE: (As John Brown) The slave needs freedom. He doesn't care how. He doesn't care, doesn't need talk. He needs actions.

DIGGS: (As Frederick Douglass) Oh, so now you know what the Negro slave needs?

DEGGANS: But then Brown tells Douglass of the hatred, fear and greed that lives in white slave owners' hearts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD LORD BIRD")

HAWKE: (As John Brown) I've been called crazy before, but I know there will be no friendship with the slave-holding man until he is soundly beaten, holds himself accountable and asks for forgiveness.

DEGGANS: Turns out crazy John Brown was right. It would take a bloody Civil War to end slavery. Because the story is told through Henry's eyes, we see how little the abolitionists understood or considered the Black people they were fighting to free, a historic example of misguided allyship. And the show's mix of brutality and humor gets at the awful absurdity of slavery in America.

But as we're all still reeling from footage of real-life Black people killed by police, it was tough for me as a Black man to watch a TV show on slavery where Black people were lynched and murdered. As well-crafted as this limited series is, I'm more interested these days and stories about Black folks achieving and thriving than merely surviving, which is why "The Good Lord Bird" never quite took off for me. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACE BUNDY'S "TIMEPIECE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.